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World leaders dial in as New Zealand hosts special APEC meeting on pandemic

FILE PHOTO: Leaders attend the retreat session of the APEC Summit in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea
FILE PHOTO: Leaders attend the retreat session of the APEC Summit in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea November 18, 2018. REUTERS/David Gray/File Photo

July 16, 2021

By Praveen Menon

WELLINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Joe Biden, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, China’s Xi Jinping and other world leaders meet virtually on Friday for the Asia-Pacific trade group APEC, seeking collective actions to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic impacts.

New Zealand, the revolving Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation host, said this week it will chair the extraordinary meeting ahead of a formal gathering in November, the first time such an additional meeting has been held.

The meeting highlights growing concerns around COVID-19 which is raging in the region as countries including Indonesia, Thailand and Australia face new waves of infections.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern stressed the importance of the 21-economy group working together to navigate a way out of the pandemic in a call with Biden ahead of the meeting.

But tensions among APEC members – mostly notably between the West and China over the origins of the coronavirus, trade, Xinjiang and South China Sea – could yet upend the agenda.

A senior Biden administration official said the president will use the forum to demonstrate his commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific.

“As one of the first opportunities he has to engage with many of these leaders, he will make clear that the U.S. has an enduring commitment to the region. He will put forward a vision for the region that is based on our values,” said the official.

Biden will also discuss how the region can work together to fuel the global economic recovery.

The meeting will include an ‘interactive’ Q&A session where leaders can ask questions or make comments, a format that is unusual for APEC leaders, where events are usually scripted.

“We expect a dynamic and interactive discussion among leaders. That is the intention of such a meeting,” said a regional diplomat. “We hope through this leaders’ meeting there will be a more concrete programme for mitigating the pandemic.”

The grouping includes the world’s three largest economies and impoverished nations such as Papua New Guinea, as well as members at vastly different points in the COVID-19 cycle, providing further challenges for building consensus.

That consensus model of APEC has been tested in recent years, with the group unable to agree on a communique at their 2018 meeting in Papua New Guinea, driven by differences between the United States led by former President Donald Trump, and China.

The 2019 APEC meeting in Chile was cancelled due to protests while the one in Malaysia last year was side-tracked as officials hastily organised a virtual meeting as the pandemic locked down the world.

In June, APEC trade ministers agreed to review trade barriers and expedite the cross-border transit of COVID-19 vaccines and related goods, but stopped short of a broad commitment to remove tariffs which New Zealand was pushing for.

There have been over 50 million cases of COVID-19 within APEC’s borders, with over one million deaths. APEC-wide GDP contracted by 1.9% in 2020.

(Additional Reporting by Jeff Mason in Washington, Tom Allard in Jakarta, Yew Lun Tian in Beijing, Ben Blanchard in Taipei, Panu Wongcha-Um in Bangkok; Editing by Lincoln Feast.)

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